PHOENIX–He probably won’t broadcast a World Series. He might not get to manage one, either. But Mark Grace has done nothing but play his role for the Arizona Diamondbacks to the best of his ability, which has gone under the radar much like the offense he’s helping coach.
After nine years in the broadcast booth, Grace made the transition from broadcaster to coach in 2013. Starting from the bottom in 2013 at extended spring training before moving up as a hitting coach with the Arizona Rookie League squad and short-season Hillsboro, Grace worked his way to an opportunity as the assistant hitting coach with the D-backs this season.
All the Diamondbacks have done on offense this year is lead the National League in runs scored while starting one–maybe two–guys that the general public would recognize in the lineup.
Now, Turner Ward deserves plenty of credit for the D-backs being the top-scoring team in the NL a year after finishing the season 11th in runs scored. And Grace gives him all of that credit. This isn’t meant in any way to discredit what he’s done. His hands are all over the Diamondbacks offense more than Grace’s.
But there’s something about seeing Grace back in a uniform that just looks and feels right. And there’s something about the Diamondbacks that makes it the perfect situation. Grace may be known as a Chicago Cub from his playing days, but, as Grace points out, he’s now been an employee for the Diamondbacks longer than he was an employee for the Cubs.
Boy, is he glad to be here.
“I wouldn’t call it a better situation,” he said when asked about the move from the broadcast booth to coaching. “It’s just a great situation period. To have the opportunity and to be able to help Turner working with these guys, it’s great.”
Grace brings a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience to the table. From his playing days alone, he led the 1990s in hits and doubles, was named to the All-Star team three times, and won four Gold Gloves. He won a World Series with the Diamondbacks, in no small part due to his lead-off single off Mariano Rivera in the 9th inning of Game 7.
With where the Diamondbacks are now, there’s no better time for Grace to be involved.
“These guys are learning on the job,” he said of the young team. “We have so many inexperienced guys with maybe a year or less of experience. Our third baseman, shortstop, second baseman, left-fielder, and right-fielder are all in their first full year. Our All-Star center fielder (A.J. Pollock) hasn’t been around long either.
“Obvioulsy we’ve got–in my opinion–the best player in the game in Paul Goldschmidt at first base. These guys are learning on the job, but they’re playing well. They believe in themselves, and that’s more than anything. It’s not so much the physical adjustments you have to make. It’s more the mental adjustments.”
The Diamondbacks have made plenty of adjustments this season. Before the St. Louis Cardinals came to Phoenix, the D-backs were just five games back in the NL West. The Cardinals swept the young team, but that shouldn’t erase the positive vibes around the team, especially considering the thought was they’d be fighting off the Rockies for last place not sneaking up on the Dodgers in first.
Goldschmidt is putting up MVP-caliber numbers, but it’s the rest of the cast that has Arizona excited about the future. Pollock’s emerged as a legitimate Robin to Goldschmidt’s Batman, sitting 13th in the league in WAR one spot ahead of Clayton Kershaw. The rest of the contributors–and there are many–include David Peralta, Ender Inciarte, Yasmany Tomas, Jake Lamb and Welington Castillo. Nick Ahmed and Chris Owings are two other young pieces the D-backs can get a look at in the middle-infield.
At this point, Grace says, those young guys are starting to see what they’re capable of.
“Finally when that eureka moment comes that can’t be coached, when they feel ‘okay I belong here’, really there’s nothing you can say or do until they feel it,” Grace explained. “They’re slowly but surely starting to feel it.”
Grace is feeling it, too. His job this season is to do anything that Ward needs him to do or help out if he’s not around. Because players hit a lot more these days and practice more than Grace says players did in his time, more hands on deck are necessary.
And Grace is all-in.
“Honestly, being in uniform, living vicariously through these guys, living and dying with these guys, it’s an adrenaline rush that you don’t get up in the booth,” Grace said. “And I love it.”
As a former Cub, it’s easy to wonder if he has a wandering eye in the direction of Chicago as the young Cubs have the third-best record in the National League. Grace certainly still has an appreciation for the city–“Chicago is the greatest city in the world,” he said–but it’s all Diamondbacks all the time now.
“I pay attention a little (to the Cubs), but like I said, I’m a Diamondback. Ninety-nine percent of my attention goes to this ballclub, and the other one percent is who we’re playing that day.”
Grace’s resume speaks for itself when it comes to a playing career, but he knows how to use the knowledge that was given to him from his Chicago days, which makes for even a more complete package as a coach and someone that D-backs players will want to listen to.
“Guys like Andre Dawson and Ryne Sandberg, these Hall-of-Fame guys, you can take a piece of what they used to do–a piece of what Ryno, Andre did, Sammy (Sosa), myself–and share that,” Grace said. “But also I was taught–and it was passed down to me by guys like Billy Williams, Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, players that were no longer playing, but they still had knowledge of the game of baseball–how to prepare. The do’s and don’ts of preparing, what to expect in certain situations, more learning situational hitting from those guys. Now I can pass down what they taught me. It worked for me and I know it’ll work for them.”
Seeing Grace in his role, you can’t help but wonder what his ceiling is in the game. With the Diamondbacks developing the way they are offensively, a change from Turner Ward won’t–and shouldn’t–happen unless he’s called upon to manage another team. With Grace down the food chain, would he consider leaving what’s become his home to find that opportunity?
“After I retired, they (D-backs) were the ones that offered me the job, so I jumped at it. Even after getting in trouble, they were right there for me the whole time. They were loyal to me, and I’m going to be loyal to them as well. I’ll be a Diamondback as long as they want me.”
That could be a long time. After two run-ins with the law, the Diamondbacks–specifically President and CEO Derrick Hall and his managing partner Ken Kendrick–reached out to Grace with the opportunity to stay in the organization. If he continues to hold up his end of the bargain, it’s hard to believe they won’t hold up theirs.
Right now, Grace wants to be the best assistant hitting coach in the league. That’s his job. But could this turn into something else? Could he see himself managing a team of his own?
“I’m 51 years old now,” Grace said. “Baseball, just like anything, is getting younger. I’m not sure if that manager window is open for me anymore, not that I wouldn’t welcome it if it was offered, but right now I’m really happy doing what I’m doing. If they want me to do this again next year, I’ll be glad to do it.”
Yes, the game is getting younger, but you never know. More and more teams are hiring managers without previous experience. Look around the league and you’ll find 13 managers this season who are at their first managing job in the big leagues. Of all the current MLB managers, only Robin Ventura, Brad Ausmus, A.J. Hinch, Craig Counsell, Mike Matheny, Kevin Cash, Jeff Banister, and Matt Williams are younger than Grace.
For now, though, Grace is doing his part and growing alongside this young, surprising team.
“These guys are still in their infancy in the big leagues,” he said. “You wait a year or two and these guys will be very good hitters in the big leagues.”
They aren’t the only ones in the infancy stages of their career. Wait a year or two, and where will a blossomed Mark Grace be?